Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E vs. Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF – a review and comparison

"Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E vs. Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF - a review and comparison" is a new article by Steve Perry (website | YouTube | Facebook | you can check also his previous NR posts here):

It’s kind of funny how things work out.

In the not-so-distant past, would-be wildlife photographers were faced with one of two rather unpleasant scenarios when it came to lens choice.

The first and most obvious was that you had to choose between buying a super telephoto or keeping your spouse (of course, for some that may have been a no-brainer, but that’s none of my business J ).

The second choice was to settle for a rather paltry selection of glass euphemistically referred to as “budget telephotos.” As a rule, these were slow, unreliable, and boasted the optical quality of a used beer bottle.

Thankfully those dark ages of photography are solidly in the rear view mirror and we now have a fantastic selection of reasonably priced, high performance optics at our disposal.

However, with all this selection comes the inevitable stress related to choosing the perfect telephoto for your needs. I see this play out over and over again in my inbox – and usually the debate is between the Nikon 200-500 and the Nikon 300 PF.

First off, rest assured both lenses are fantastic optics capable of delivering world-class results. However, choosing the right lens for your shooting style can still be a tough decision.

As luck would have it, I happen to own both optics and I’ve been squeezing thousands of images through them at a variety of wildlife locations. So, at this point I feel like I have a fairly good idea of what they’re capable of.

And that’s where the video comes in:

I’ve put together a comprehensive review comparing and contrasting both lenses. We’ll examine everything from size and build quality to speed, sharpness, VR performance and more. Along the way, I’ll drop in some tips and tricks I’ve discovered that may be of use to you as well.

So, head to the play button and let ‘er rip. Enjoy!

Also, if you enjoy this video, make sure to stop by my site and check out my e-book, Secrets To Stunning Wildlife Photography. It’s nearly 300 pages of my best tips tricks, and advice for getting award-winning images on your memory card.

Ghost crab

Ghost crab

One of the reasons I love the 300 PF (and the 200-500) is its ability to get in close when you’re eye to compound eye with a small critter like this ghost crab. (Nikon D500, Nikon 300 PF + Nikon 1.4TCIII, 1/1000th, F5.6, ISO 1250 – note the higher speed was because I was also trying to capture him tossing sand from his burrow)

Fly Fisherman

Fly Fisherman

While the 200-500 isn’t going to break any speed records in the AF department, it’s still very capable of nailing the action in most circumstances. (Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500 @ 420mm, 1/3200th, F5.6, ISO 360)

Tern Catching A Fish

Tern Catching A Fish

Here’s where the extra AF speed of the 300 PF really makes a difference. In this scenario, the tern was diving into the waves and the camera had to instantly lock on as soon as he left the water – otherwise I would have missed all the cool splash action you see in this photo. (Nikon D500, Nikon 300 PF, 1/3200th, F4, ISO 1000)

Ibis Coming In

Ibis Coming In

In case you were concerned, the 200-500 also works great on a full frame camera like the D5 🙂 In fact, I prefer it on full frame when I’m close enough to my subjects to get away with it. (Nikon D5, Nikon 200-500 @ 500mm, 1/2000th, F5.6, ISO 2800)

Great Blue Heron Portrait

Great Blue Heron Portrait

When I first arrived in Florida with my new 200-500, I still wasn’t sure just how sharp it was. This was one of the first images I captured down there and it left any sharpness concerns in the dust. At times, this lens can be almost prime-like in the level of sharpness it displays. (Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500 @ 500mm, 1/1000th, F5.6, ISO 2800)

Little Green Heron In Flight

Little Green Heron In Flight

The 200-500’s AF speed can cause a missed shot here and there, but the trick is to have the focus already in the ballpark before the actions starts. That’s how I was able to capture this fast moving little green heron as he whizzed by.  (Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500, 1/4000th, F5.6, ISO 1600)

Marching Fawn

Marching Fawn

One thing I really enjoy about the 300 PF is how it renders backgrounds and helps isolate subjects. While I can usually live with the 200-500’s F5.6, in my opinion, there’s something special that happens when you start opening up to F4 (and beyond). (Nikon D500, Nikon 300PF, 1/1000th, F4, ISO 1800)

Little Doe

Little Doe

This was one of my very first shots with the 300 PF. The compact size of this lens makes it incredibly easy to take on my morning hikes and you can’t complain about the sharpness. By the way, isn’t she about the prettiest doe you’ve ever seen? (Nikon D7200, Nikon 300PF, 1/200th, F4, ISO 1600)

Mid-Air Strike

Mid-Air Strike

Another little bit of proof that the 200-500 is completely capable of capturing action. This is actually a fairly heavy crop, but the 200-500 is sharp enough to handle it. (Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500, 1/4000th, F5.6, ISO 360)

Swooping Egret

Swooping Egret

This was captured next to a crowded boardwalk with the 300 PF. I liked the 300 PF in this situation for a couple reasons. First, with all the people passing on the boardwalk, a large outfit on a tripod was out of the question. Second was that the lens was small enough to poke through the railing when I needed to get low.  (Nikon D7200, Nikon 300PF, 1/1000th, F5, ISO 220)

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • Cynog

    4th paragraph: “optical quality of a used beer bottle”. What’s wrong with that? Everything looks great after a few beers!

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  • Kiboko

    Thanks Steve Perry, and NR for posting!

  • I like Steve,Clear,concise and helpful. Plus he backs up his words with some amazing work. It will take me a few years to save up for one of these, but it’s great to start to get an idea of which one i would want/need.

  • etr_brony

    thanks for sharing, the 300mm photos defiantly seem to jump out to me

  • Max

    How heavy is the 200-400 vs 200-500?

    • animalsbybarry

      7.4 lb for 200-400 f4 VR ii
      4.6 lb for 200-500 f5.6
      1.6 lb for 300 f4 PF

      • Max

        That’s 3.3kg. Crazy.


    Hi Admin, there is a typo in your title and the first paragraph, where you have written “Nikkpr 300mm”. Just sayin’…

    • Fixed

      • ZoetMB

        Not in the headline, it’s not (unless I’m having some sort of weird cache problem). I was wondering what “Nikkpr” was – at first I thought it was some cheap clone.

  • StevenS

    Just get the D500 and forget the TC’s, seriously. You don’t lose the stop or 2 and the pixel density is very good. I have the D800 and the D500 and the former I will use when methodical and larger capture is in order. The D500 is an amazing camera in all respects. The AF is the 8th wonder of the world. The IQ is very very good. This camera is about the sum of the whole. From a financial perspective, dropping 500 on a TC vs 2000 on a body. The body is just all around way more useful. Fast, intuitive during use, an extension of mind, eye and soul.

    • I agree 🙂

    • a.almeida

      Of course one can add a TC with a D500 for even greater reach.

      • StevenS

        I agree for the right subject matter. A TC can cause AF performance degradations however, so caution should be used. TC’s seem to pair better with the primes partly because of this.

        • a.almeida

          Rightly so. I was thinking of my 300PF + 1.4TC when I made my comment. Thanks.

    • outkasted

      Totally Agree! After years of using a D300/D700 combo I really missed the reach of the D300. I ‘ve been waiting patiently for a replacement. The D7000 series of cameras just did not excite me. D500 it is. Bring on America’s Cup next year. #Bermuda

  • StevenS

    Beautiful work! Thank you for the well written, real usage, hands on assessment.

  • DaveR43

    Some great images, and useful discussion. The images included in the video come out brilliantly on-screen – especially the crab at 16:19!

  • The author references having to make a choice between a $2,000 lens and a spouse. For those of you finding yourself in a similar situation, remember to put things in proper perspective for your other half. A nice 21 foot day cruiser boat runs around $25,000-30,000.

    • SteveWithAnS

      Haha well said. I’m sure most women own a few purses or shoes with a combined cost of more than $2,000. I also doubt they informed their husbands about each purchase.

    • Art

      Let’s see… A lens always finds interesting what you find interesting. A lens will never voluntarily leave you. A Nikon or Zeiss lens will always be your best friend. A good lens is a piece of art and will always look good if you take care of it. A good lens is always “sharp as a tack” (sharper actually). The list goes on and on. So if you have to choose….

  • Reilly Diefenbach

    Very nice article. I have the 300PF plus t.c. and love it. The 200-500 looks good too!

  • David

    I think this review covers exactly what we expect with Primes vs. Zooms. That is, focus speed, bokeh. Two different animals though. A fairer comparison would have been with the 200-400 f/4. It will be the same thing as we always see with the Trinity level lenses vs. the primes. Primes still better. Nothing beats a prime but you have every shooting situation and that’s why you buy lenses up until the spouse gets her say. 🙂

  • porsupah

    Could someone more knowledgeable about lens design clarify what contributes – especially in these two cases – to autofocus speed?

    • Usually it’s up to what element they have to move, how far they have to move it, what they use to move it. For example, something like the 70-300g used the motor in the body to move the FRONT element! (probably the largest in the whole lens)

      Zooms tend to have more elements, and so tend to have more mass/glass to move in order to focus.

      A cheaper motor slows things down. A bigger one can cost more battery.

      In the case of these two, all the parts of the 300 are much, much smaller, and there’s room for any type/size of motor.

  • Kevin D Dell

    I’m surprised that there are few comparisons that include use of the AF-S 80-400; That is a great lens on a D7100. I have just upgraded to a D500 for DX and am looking forward to the results.

    • I have the 80-400 and did some brief comparisons. The 200-500 seems as sharp or sharper at all the shared focal lengths. The AF on the 80-400 is faster, but AF on the 200-500 seems more reliable and consistent to me. VR on the 200-500 is also better IMO.
      The big thing is that you don’t get the wider end on the 200-500. For some applications, that can be critical, for others who never drop below 200mm, it doesn’t matter.

      • Kevin D Dell

        Thanks Steve,
        For me, the wider end is a big deal when I am shooting equestrienne events, but when I go out birding I’d be interested in trying the 200-500. I wonder how much of the reliability of the focus on the 200-500 compared to the 80-400 is due to the narrower zoom range….any thoughts?

        • Not sure – all I know is that the 80-400 AF seems to have a little more “chatter” and doesn’t always lock in as nice as the 200-500 (at least with my copy of each lens). It’s kind of the the 80-400 is the nervous chihuahua of my lenses!

          • I found that my D500 chatters less than the D7100/D7200. My D300 also chattered less than the D7100/D7200 (BTW: owned both and still consider the D300 a better camera for action)

            • Ronald Toppe

              The new version of the 80-400 is sharp, focuses superfast on my D750, and the VR is a miracle. It is much smaller and 750 grams lighter than the 200-500, and the reach just a bit shorter. Go for it!

  • Mr_Miyagi

    Three tries before he got a sharp 200-500mm ? Apparently 67% of the time Nikon will give you less than you paid for. The 200-500mm should come with a big red sticker warning until Nikon ups its game and fixes the QC problems it has with this lens, even if Nikon has to raise the price to ensure the lens meets the standards of consistency we expect from Nikon optics.

    • I like to think that it was just bad luck on my part TBH. However, Photography Life did a review of the 200-500 and had 2 out of 5 that were of poor quality. I don’t see a ton of people complaining about the IQ, so hopefully it was just some bad luck…

      • Adam Fo

        Nikkors coming out of the Chinese factory seem to be all over the place optically….

  • I have 200-500/5.6 E almost for a year beside the 300/2.8 VR2. The lens is really sharp even with TC14 or TC17. But is pretty slow in terms of AF speed. Flying birds or fast action where subject distance changes, this lens become useless. That’s why I still have Nik 300/2.8. Big pros is lens weight and focal range. If AF would be 50% faster then this lens would be a block buster…

  • BPhoto

    Another quality video from Steve Perry. Thank you.
    But why choose – buy both lenses!

  • Nick Hall

    Very nice clear video and fantastic images.
    Just to put a number on the reach advantage for a crop frame camera:
    Clearly for a D500 vs D5 this is a factor of 1.5, or 50%.
    But for those considering D500 vs D800 / D810 it’s only 12%.
    The D800 puts 16mp into the DX crop area and sqrt 20 / sqrt 16 = 1.12.

    To put it another way, a 300mm lens on a D500 may be a 450 eq, but 20 mp on a D800 with that lens covers an angle of view of 450/1.12 = 402 eq.
    Just sayin’.

    Of course there are other advantages to having D500, … apparently 😉

  • Tommy Brown

    I purchased the Nikon 200-500 for sports and tried it on D3 and D4s.
    The results are much better on D4s. (ISO and focusing as the sun goes down)
    Football season just started here in Michigan and I found my reach for across the field shots! Yay!
    I love this lens!

    • StevenS

      Another Michigander:) I’m from the Tri City area. Whereabouts are you at? Call me crazy but I purchased the Sigma Contemporary. It has been a money maker for me. It is quite sharp and af has been quick on the D500. Its sharpest in the 150-475mm range but 600 is quite acceptable. I photographed the Junior Men’s Fastpitch Softball World Championships with it and was super. I know a few others that have the Nikon and are extremely pleased with it as well.

      Here come the Friday night lights:)

  • DSLRUser

    It was a great video until you brought up ISO. When will people learn that raising ISO actually reduces noise.



  • Beso

    Steve Perry does a great job on his videos – practical, down to earth and real world experiences. Perry is also very honest and doesn’t sugarcoat his reviews; as in having to get three copies of the 200-500 before getting a good one. Thanks for posting this Admin.

  • Fantastic write-up, fantastic video, fantastic photography. I’ll take the 300mm f/4 🙂

  • jetboy

    I shoot wildlife with a D750 and the 300mm. The 1.4x TC works pretty well, but I’ve been disappointed with the loss of sharpness with the 2x TC. I get better results without the 2x and just cropping.

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